“Being the Church in the Midst of Empire”

NOTE: In April of 2021 I have added a supplement to my bibliography. In can be found here

I The First Century: My Research of Biblical Scholars

Until the last twenty-five or thirty years, our understanding of the first century church has been next to nothing. Biblical writers and historians have assumed that what we knew about the fourth century church extended back to this earlier period, and that there was a kind of unbroken line from what was written in the New Testament.

But two groups of scholars from the Society for Biblical Literature (SBL) have helped fill in this period from which we have very few written records, other than the New Testament. One, the Greco-Roman Meal group, has pointed to a form of social gathering that was ‘the’ way of groups meeting for eight centuries from the time of Plato into the third century CE. This was likely the gathering format of the earliest followers of Jesus.

Another sub-group of the SBL has focussed on the external reality in which the early ‘Christians’ lived out their lives, the Roman Empire. The life of those earlier followers is encapsulated in the title of one book: “In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance. A bibliography I have assembled from these writers is here. One can sense the conflict of early Jesus communities with the empire by seeing the number of books with such words as ‘subversive’, ‘resistance’ or ’against’ in their titles or their intent. (1) [Footnotes after the chart of Council Documents]

II The Twenty-first Century: Clergy Books and Church Council Documents

After having read what I considered a significant amount of the empire scholarship of the first century, I turned to present writings to see if the insights of the scholars was being used by today’s church. I placed my blog posts on empire to about 35 Facebook religious group pages that I had joined. Though getting some ‘likes’ or ‘follows’, I don’t think I had a single person who said something to the effect of “Hey, we ought to be following the early church’s example of becoming an alternative community in opposition to today’s empire.”

I looked next to parish ministers and other writers of books on the church. There were only about five books that I found. (2) This was a pretty low ratio of practical ministry to the over 100 books I found from the scholars. But the books that I did find displayed the same penchant for words in the title like those in the scholarly output: resistance and subversive.

I was nearly to the point of feeling that my intuition about the value of the work of the Biblical scholars for revitalizing the present church was mistaken, when a colleague introduced me to a couple of documents that came out of church councils. So I began trying to locate more of these documents. The result of my searching can be found in the chart below. Of the several families or traditions of churches, I found that three had published documents, the Reformed tradition, the Lutherans, and, interestingly, a branch of the Orthodox church. I have made bold what I consider the significant works.

The similarity in titles of three of them shows what they saw as vital. Putting them together you have:

a) Being the Church/ Mission/ Living Faithfully   
b) in the Midst/Context   
c) of Empire.

It was exciting to discover that church leaders got to what I had intuited long before I had. Further, I had seen the possibilities for the academic studies for providing a new paradigm for the church- being an alternative community whose loyalty to the Reign of God that Jesus had taught. But they had seen the next stage that I had not: developing an alternative to the present dominant empire.

For this they turned to the World Council of Churches. Under its umbrella, the Lutherans and the Reformed encouraged the WCC to work with them. They had already given a term for today’s empire: neoliberal global capitalism. This has given us not only severe economic disparity, both nationally but also in the Global South. Today’s global empire also requires a growth that our planet cannot sustain without depleting the earth’s resources at the same time as bringing on global warming. The first of the WCC documents relevant here is AGAPE: Alternative Globalization Addressing People and Earth– the beginning scheme for a new, alternate global economy.

III My Proposal: From Both Biblical Scholars and Church Councils- Alternative Congregations

Invigorated by the work of the church councils, I turn back to my plan, as stated beneath the title of my blog, Subversive Church: Helping the 21st Century Church Reflect the 1st Century Church’s Subversive Focus.

I have so far been in contact with the person responsible for promoting social justice in three  denominations in three different countries, all “United” denominations: United Reformed Church in the United Kingdom, United Church of Canada, and my own United Methodist Church in the U. S. The first two have council documents they work with: Mission in the Context of Empire for the URC; Living Faithfully in the Midst of Empire for the UCCan. The Methodist family has no such documents (also true of the Anglicans and Baptists), so I have approached the Methodist Federation for Social Action, which has a tradition in working for social justice in over a century.

Chart of Council Documents on Church and Empire

Hypertext links for the most significant council documents are found as footnote (3).

   World Council         of ChurchesWorld Council Reform ChurchCouncil for World MissionLutheran World FederationOther Traditions

Daily Bread Instead of Greed To Seek Justice & Resist Evil 2000 (UCC)
     Accra Confession

2005         AGAPE: Addressing Peoples and Earth


Accra Confession Covenanting for Justice in Economy & Earth
Being Church in the Midst of Empire Living Faithfully in the Midst of Empire (UCC)

 Poverty, Wealth and Ecological Justice (UCC)

Reviewing Partnership in the Context of Empire (UCC)

 Mission in the Context of Empire 


2012    São Paulo Statement*


2014Economy of Life for All*
Accra Confession: Ten Years Later


Laudato Si (RC)

Church in Public Space

Accra Confession as a response to empire
Unmasking Empire


Fallen is Babylon: Reading Bible in Context of Empire


Fratelli Tutti (RC)

For the Life of the World: Toward the Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church

    *Co-sponsored by WCRC, CWM, & LWF

UCC: United Church of Canada


(1) Books that indicate the First Century Church as an alternative community, an over-against-ness, to the Roman Empire, by words in their titles:

Subversive Meals: An Analysis of the Lord’s Supper under Roman Domination during the First Century,  R. Alan Streett 2013
Holy Subversion: Allegiance to Christ in an Age of Rivals, Trevin Wax 2010
Subverting the Devil’s Kingdom 24/7, Jared Moore 2012
Subversive Christianity Imaging God in a Dangerous Time, Brian Walsh 2015
Subversive Kingdom: Living as Agents of Gospel Transformation, Ed Stetzer  2012
Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire, Walsh and Keesmaat 2004

In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance, 
Richard Horsley (ed) 2008
Jesus vs. Caesar: for people tired of serving the wrong God, Joerg Rieger. 2018
Resurrection as Anti-Imperial Gospel:  1 Thessalonians 1: 9b-10 in Context, Edward Pillar 2013
Resisting Empire: Rethinking the Purpose of the Letter to “the Hebrews”,  Jason Whitlark 2014
Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance, Emily Swan, Ken Wilson 2018BRomans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice, Sylvia C. Keesmaat and Brian J. Walsh May 21, 2019
Theo-Biblical Reflections on Important Issues from the Margins: Black Lives Matter, Incarceration, & Resistance to Empire, Tyree Anderson, Kurt Clark  2019

God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now, J. D. Crossan 2009
Christ and Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times,  Joerg Rieger, 2007.
Being the Church in the Midst of Empire, Karen L. Bloomquist 2005
To Caesar What Is Caesar’s: Tribute, Taxes, and Imperial Administration in Early Roman Palestine, Fabian Udoh  2005
Empire Baptized– How the Church Embraced What Jesus Rejected: 2nd – 5th Centuries,  Wes Howard-Brook 2016
Come Out, My People! God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond, Wes Howard-Brook 2012
World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age, Kavin Rowe 2009

(2) Books by clergy on the Over-against-ness Church for the 21st Century
The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus, Robin R. Meyers, emeritus minister of Mayflower UCC, Oklahoma City.
Sacred Resistance: A Practical Guide to Christian Witness and Dissent, Ginger Gaines-Cirell, pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church.
Faithful Resistance: Gospel Visions for the Church in a Time of Empire, Rick Ufford-Chase, Past moderator of Presbyterian Church (USA), along with 13 mostly Reform colleagues.
The Fall of the Church, Roger Haydon Mitchell, consultant to the faith community, U. K.
A Conspiracy of Love: Following Jesus in a Postmodern World, Kurt Struckmeyer 2016

(3) Hypertext Links for Major Council Documents
Accra Confession: (found here)
Being the Church in the Midst of Empire: (found here)
Living Faithfully in the Midst of Empire: (found here)
Mission in the Context of Empire: (found here
Unmasking Empire: (found here)
AGAPE: Alternative Globalization Addressing People and Earth. (found here)

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